Views / Opinion

Religious groups think they can't speak their minds. Now Trump wants to help them

How a tax reform bill turned into a debate over how political churches should be.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on May 4, directing the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, which bars religious groups and non-profits from open political campaigning. Now the president is aiming to axe the rule entirely.

Evan Vucci / The Associated Press

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on May 4, directing the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, which bars religious groups and non-profits from open political campaigning. Now the president is aiming to axe the rule entirely.

The idea that the U.S. religious right lacks political agency is ludicrous.

And yet, that argument is playing a crucial role in pushing Donald Trump’s tax reform plan.

Evangelical Christians have been flexing their political muscles for the past year. They helped get Trump elected, and via his ultra-conservative Vice President, Mike Pence, they’ve influenced Trump’s moves to weaken contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act, reverse protections for LGBTQ Americans under anti-discrimination law, and back a House bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks.

But that’s only a sliver of their political activity and activism. Take far-right Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. Before the allegations of sexual abuse of minors reached national media, 50 pastors had signed a letter of support for the candidate. One of those recently suggested the allegations amount to a “war on men.” Another dismissed them as “an attempt by the Democrats to sway voters in Alabama.”

And yet, leaders of the religious right still complain they can’t speak their minds. And Trump has promised to help.

In February he told faith leaders that he would repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations from directly or indirectly endorsing or opposing candidates or intervening in campaigns — a ban the IRS has rarely enforced, and one that’s been flagrantly ignored.

Then, this month, a proposed repeal of that amendment showed up in the House GOP’s tax bill, and it’s seen as a carrot to encourage wavering Republican lawmakers in the Senate to cave and approve the Senate’s version.

The Alliance Defending Freedom — a powerful conservative Christian legal group and the force behind a host of cases aimed at putting religious rights above others — decries the amendment as censorship. Its president told the New York Times the amendment has had a “chilling effect on free speech.”

But its repeal would be felt far less from the religious right’s pulpit — active as it's been on Trump and Moore, among many other candidates and issues — than in its pocketbook.

Without the Johnson Amendment, churches would effectively be able to collect campaign donations tax-free, becoming important conduits for political fundraising. And that’s what has other non-profits and faith groups trembling.

“The sham ‘churches’ that would spring up would be the new Mega PACs (political action committees),” warned the president of the National Council of Nonprofits.

A group of more than 4,000 faith leaders from across the country have signed a petition arguing the move would turn faith groups into “cogs in partisan political machines.”

As if many weren’t already. Trump has discovered the easiest applause will come from the religious groups to which he panders. They were willing to vote for him, an avowed genital-grabbing divorcé with near-zero knowledge of Christianity and a flip-flopping history on abortion. That means there’s a lot they’re willing to do in pursuit of power.

For Trump, and crucially with his tax bill, where there’s a Bible, there’s a way.

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